On a map of the world Eritrea looks like a small country, neatly tucked along the horn of Africa, wedged in between its larger neighbors to the west and east, Ethiopia and Sudan. When you travel in the country, however, it suddenly takes on a different character, growing in size with each passing mile spent on the bumpy dirt roads under the wide, startlingly blue sky. The distances feel especially great when you head deep into the highlands where the rudimentary roads go no further.
There, at the end of the road, you will often find a small collection of huts that make up a village of industrious people living off the land, struggling to make it from day-to-day by following the traditions that have been passed down from one generation to another.
Increasingly when you reach that village at the end of the road you will also come upon a school packed with students and overflowing with optimism. That is because the schools are involved with Mercy Corps' Education Improvement Program, a 30-month program partnership between Mercy Corps, Vision Eritrea and the Ministry of Education. The pioneering program is funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The education initiative has three main components: a school feeding program, the strengthening of Parent Teachers Associations (PTAs) and improvements to school water systems. It is currently reaching over 54,000 students in 132 public schools throughout the country.
Perhaps the most visible component of the program involves the distribution of high-energy biscuits to students each school day. The biscuits, containing approximately 700 calories and 24 grams of protein, are often the only food the students will eat all day and are helping to attract more students to the classroom.
"The rise in school enrollment has been dramatic. Students are not as drowsy and have more energy to learn. The teachers are also inspired. The say, 'If the students are motivated, then so are we,'" said Ezra Simon, Mercy Corps' Program Manager.
The biscuits were initially made in Italy and India but they are now produced locally by two factories that employ nearly 200 people, a significant number in a country where unemployment rates run high. In addition to the biscuits, each package contains educational teaching aids designed by local artists.
The biscuits are distributed through the PTAs, strengthening the link between communities and their schools. Before a school becomes involved in the program its PTA must undergo a training seminar. Simon said that an emphasis has been placed on getting women involved in community decision-making and that each seminar must be attended by at least 50 percent women.
"Eritrea has a history of strong community involvement and there is a high level of interest in the education system which is still fairly new so getting parents involved has been fairly easy," Simon said.
"Many of the villages where we work have been traditionally underserved. People in the these villages and even in the Ministry of Education are surprised and excited that the program is reaching these children at the end of the road, so to speak."
The program is proving to be especially valuable as families in Eritrea continue to cope with the worst drought to hit the country in two decades. An estimated 1.4 million of the 3.5 million people living in Eritrea are expected to require food aid in the upcoming months after the widespread failure of crops and livestock. By providing food assistance to students at school, the program is freeing up resources for vulnerable adults at home.
Simon said that in addition to expanding the water component of the program, Mercy Corps is also looking into ways to assist livestock affected by the severe drought.